Today: November 19 2018
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Port of doubt

Port of doubt

Tags: China, India, Port, Analytics, Building, Sri Lanka, Ships, Fleet, Economy

China has been rented for 99 years strategically important point off the Indian coast

The other day China has got another foreign port. Sri Lanka officially transferred the port of Hambantota in the south of the country for 99 years to use the PRC. The Chinese got a loss-making, but strategically important object. In New Delhi, it is suspected that Beijing is quietly trying to create a military base in the soft underbelly of India. China itself claims that the port on the main trade route through the Indian Ocean is necessary to it exclusively for peaceful purposes. In geopolitical intricacies understood

$ 292 097 400 - this amount will forever enter the political history of Sri Lanka. This is how much China paid for the deepwater port of Hambantota on the south coast of the island. Photos of smiling prime minister Ranil Vikramasinghe holding a huge plastic check, flew all the media in South Asia.

"The signing of this agreement with China means that we have finally started paying our debts. Hambantota will turn into a major port in the Indian Ocean, an economic zone will appear there, the surrounding area will be industrialized, and this will ultimately give an impetus to economic development and tourism, "Vikramasinghe said to Sri Lankan parliamentarians.

Of course, $ 292 million is only the first tranche, followed by others - a total of $ 1,12 billion. For small Sri Lanka - a real golden rain, for rich China - a relatively small cost. For this money, he was rented for 99 years - as in his time, Great Britain Hong Kong, - a deep-water port at the crossroads of the world trade routes across the Indian Ocean.

Generously and without obligation

The city of Hambantota is located on the southern coast of Sri Lanka at 240 km from the economic capital of the country - Colombo. In ancient times, its convenient harbor served as one of the centers of Asian trade - ships of Middle Eastern, Chinese, Malacca merchants visited it. However, after Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, was colonized first by the Dutch, and then by the British, Hambantota fell into decay, unable to withstand competition with the main port of the island - Colombo. By the beginning of the XX century, the ancient port had turned into a small coastal town-type settlement.

Everything changed at the beginning of the XXI century. Elected in 2005 by President Mahendra Rajapaksa, a native of the village of Viraqetia in the province of Hambantota, decided to make his small homeland again great. To do this, it was necessary to turn Hambantota into a modern port, and to do this, money was needed.

Ex-President of Sri Lanka Mahendra Rajapaksa

With the finances, Rajapaksa was ill. The president, triumphantly defeating the militants of the organization "Tigers of Tamil Eelam" and having finally completed a long war, did not hesitate at the last stage in the funds. Western countries had many questions about the observance of human rights. Dissatisfaction was expressed also by a large neighbor, India, who, on the one hand, secretly helped the Sri Lankan authorities in the war, and on the other, had to reckon with the feelings of a large Tamil community that inhabits the south of the country.

To help desperately in need of funds Rajapaksa came China. Beijing did not link monetary tranches with democratic reforms, did not ask unnecessary questions and did not even ask what means Sri Lanka is going to give interest on generous loans. True, the rate was unusually high for the region - 6,3% (for comparison, India distributes loans to neighbors under a symbolic 1%, or even half a percent).

In total, Sri Lanka received from China $ 8 billion - a solid amount for a small state. These funds Rajapaksa invested in infrastructure projects throughout the country, built highways and railways and power lines.

But the favorite child of the premier was his native Hambantota, who was destined to play a fatal role in the history of Sri Lanka.

A place of the damned

With the implementation of the idea of ​​the Rajapaksa immediately problems began. For the time that the port was in decline, the size of the ships had changed dramatically, and by new standards, the Hambantota Bay was shallow. It began to deepen, but soon stumbled upon a huge outcrop of rock, which prevented the channel from laying for large ships. The rock was eventually removed, but this required additional investments.

There were problems with the local residents. To build a modern port, thousands of people were required to be evacuated, who, without fools, demanded solid compensations for lost lands and houses. Somehow they managed to calm down, promising to provide additional jobs, but soon it turned out that Chinese engineers do not want to hire local, preferring to carry labor from a distant homeland. In general, it was found that a large part of Chinese money eventually migrated to the pockets of Chinese firms that conduct the work, although companies from the UAE, India and Russia also started to build the port.

Construction of a modern port in Hambantota

Nevertheless, with a titanic effort, the port was completed in two years to the working condition and opened on the birthday of the president Rajapaksy. Next to it, an industrial park and a modern airport were built. The Sri Lankan authorities breathed a sigh of relief, declared the port a free economic zone and prepared to make a profit.

But the monetary rivers from Hambantota to the treasury did not flow. It was found that merchant vessels still prefer to go to Colombo, the economic center of the country, and not to the ultra-modern but out-of-town port. Tourists on local beaches also did not break. The huge airspace of Mattala deserved the glory of "the world's empty airport": cargo terminals stored in the surrounding fields were stored in cargo terminals, and the guards were mainly engaged in driving from the overgrown runways of wild elephants. The situation was somehow saved by Indian, Korean and Japanese automakers, which turned Hambantota into the main Asian car hub: cars were brought there from the factories, which then were sent to consumers in the Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia. But they could not fully cover the grandiose losses, and then the Chinese comrades softly reminded that it was time to pay the bills.

Mattla Airport in Hambantota

By the time the Chinese came for their money, the ambitious Rajapaksa had already left the presidency. He was removed from the cabinet with great difficulty: joint efforts of the opposition, the military and the functionaries of his own "Freedom Party", dissatisfied with the dictatorial habits of the president and the fact that he did not know how to stay in nepotism. According to some sources, Indian intelligence has played an organizing role, dissatisfied with the fact that Rajapaksa was in debt to the Chinese in debt.

The new president, Maitripal Sirisen, together with Prime Minister Ranil Vikramasinghe, thought they had an excellent move: to transfer 80% of the shares of unprofitable Hambantot to China - that is, in effect, to sell. But then thousands of local peasants rebelled, before whom the prospect of losing houses without any compensation during the next expansion of construction, port workers fearing replacement by the Chinese, and oppositionists trying to gain political capital loomed. Headed disgruntled retired president Rajapaksa, from a supporter of friendship with Beijing, suddenly turned into an ardent fighter with Chinese expansion and loudly blaming the new government in an effort to sell the country to businessmen from China. And most importantly - the plan of Sirisena and Vikramasinghe condemned India.

Breaking a Pearl Necklace

"For other countries, the Indian Ocean is only one part of the World Ocean. For India, it is vitally important and therefore should rightly become the Indian Sea, "wrote Indian politician and strategist Kavalam Panikkar back in 1945 two years before his country gained independence. - The future of India is inextricably linked with the ocean. We must create a steel ring around our shores and within this ring have a fleet strong enough to protect our shores and water areas important for Indian security and economic prosperity. This ring must pass through the islands of the Bay of Bengal, Singapore, Mauritius and Socotra. The fleet should be based in Ceylon. Until this happens, India will not know either security or peace. "

USNS Fall River high-speed cargo ship arrived in Hambantota to participate in the Pacific Partnership 2017 mission in Sri Lanka

Since then, the Indian fleet has been slowly but consistently moving towards this goal. By the beginning of the XXI century, the Indian Navy finally became the dominant force in the Indian Ocean, and at that moment they had a formidable opponent. More and more Chinese merchant ships and warships appeared in the Indian Ocean. In countries that New Delhi used to reckon in its zone of influence, the Chinese deployed ambitious infrastructure projects that the Indians simply could not compete with.

According to Indian alarmists in political and military circles, China is tightening the "pearl necklace" on the neck of India - a network of bases already existing or just planned, that will cover the Indian coast and put India at a disadvantageous geopolitical position. The Chinese, in turn, argue that all their projects are exclusively peaceful in nature and are designed only to ensure the unimpeded flow of cargo from China to Europe and oil from the Persian Gulf countries to China. In recent years, added to this work in the framework of the project "Belts and ways."

Sri Lanka in this situation was in a unique position. On the one hand, it is located on the main sea trade highway East Asia - Persian Gulf. On the other hand, it is in close proximity to the shores of India, for which the question of who will control the Sri Lankan ports is of paramount importance.

Be afraid of the Chinese, gifts bringing

The new Sri Lankan authorities turned out to be more realistic than the former president of Rajapaksa, for whom the habit of pulling the Indian tiger behind a mustache ended in a sudden resignation. To start, Sirisen and Vikramasinghe demonstratively refused the Chinese submarine at the call to the port of Colombo, and then announced that they would change the terms of the contract for the transfer of the Hambantota. Negotiations lasted several months and ended in July.

According to them, the port was transferred to PRC for rent for 99 years. The Chinese get 70% of the shares. Manage the port will be not one, but two Chinese companies - Hambantota International Port Group (HIPG) and Hambantota International Port Services (HIPS), each of which formally does not have a controlling stake. Sri Lanka retains its unconditional sovereignty over the port territory and ensures its security, and the Chinese pledge not to establish a military base there.

The launch of a Chinese destroyer of a new generation

To these conditions New Delhi reluctantly agreed. According to some reports, it is true that having bargained for the exchange of the airport, Mattala is the same one with wild elephants, in the expectation that if the Chinese really turn Hambantota into a garden city, then the airport will come to life, and if not, then the base near the Chinese not prevent. In passing, Indians instructively point out neighboring Pakistanis: see how the habit of taking generous Chinese loans ends. Beijing does not write off debts - it will sooner or later take back the infrastructure under which it gave money.

The main question now is: will the People's Republic of China manage to create a miracle and turn a loss-making port into a lucrative port? As the implementation of Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa, East and South-East Asia shows, they are quite capable of doing this - if, of course, they really need the Hambantota for economic and not military purposes. Indian politicians fear that the Chinese promise to not create a military base Beijing, if necessary, can take back - for example, promising Sri Lankan authorities writing off a couple of billions of debt. Well, or simply use Hambantota as a supply point to the PLA Navy, without violating any obligations.

And there are reasons for these fears, as it seems from New Delhi. In recent years, China has sharply increased its activity in the Indian Ocean: Chinese firms are building ports in Pakistan, the Maldives (in late November, China signed a free trade agreement with the Republic of Maldives), in Myanmar and Bangladesh, rented for 99 a port of the Australian the city of Darwin. In August 2017, the PRC deployed a military base in Djibouti. So the Indians have every reason for concern. No wonder that in 2015 the senior officer and associate professor of the National Defense University of the PLA Zhao Yi told a group of Indian journalists:

"It's time for India to stop perceiving the Indian Ocean as its backyard. Of course, it plays a special role in ensuring stability in the region, but it should be remembered that the Indian Ocean is the water area, in accordance with international laws, open to all countries. "

Alexei Kupriyanov
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